Bowled over by lane discipline and physics

`Bowling alleys were symbols of rebellion. They haven't shaken off that smoking, boozing place-to-plan mischief image'
Click to follow
The Independent Online
My interview with Britain's top tenpin bowling family started with a 15-minute physics lesson. That came as a bit of a surprise. As everyone knows, it's a sport in only the loosest sense, played by blowsy babes and men who look as if they're hiding a second bowling ball under their Hawaii shirts. Skilful? If trundling a medicine ball at 10 helpless pins is an art, then I'm a pile of bricks in the Tate Gallery.

So I was all prepared to ask searching questions about the best hamburger and chips they had ever eaten, or why all bowling alleys look as if they've been built by Russian nihilists, with interior design by the local playgroup. Instead, I got a lecture on velocity, inertia and a load of incomprehensible stuff about acceleration being inversely proportional to the body's mass.

Tenpin, despite its physics, has had a bad press ever since the first lanes opened here in 1960. (There was a bowling alley at Rosyth in 1938, but that was on the American naval base). It was the time of mods and rockers, when youth suddenly realised that elders were not necessarily betters. All-night bowling alleys were a symbol of rebellion, and they have not yet shaken off that smoking, boozing place-to-plan mischief image.

"It's not like that at all," says Jacquie Winter. "In competition, you're not allowed to smoke or drink alcohol, and you must wear the proper dress."

Since the day when she and a group of 18-year-old mates played on lane nine of the tiny bowling alley on Walton pier in Essex, tenpin has dominated her life. That day Jacquie met her husband, Chris, British junior champion a couple of years earlier. "I soon realised that, if I wanted to see him, I had to go along. Watching is pretty boring, so soon I was playing too."

Almost 30 years on, they're still avid bowlers, and they are to tenpin what the Redgraves are to acting. They tour the country playing competitions; they go on holiday to places where there's a bowl nearby; their son Daniel, 20, is Walton's top player and, last weekend, the trio made up nearly half of the seaside town's team that featured in the Silk Cut Tenpin League final on Wire TV . "This year 114 teams took part and, next year, it will be double that," Chris said.

A former secretary of the British Tenpin Bowling Association, he claims, optimistically, that there are about five million bowlers in this country alone. (In the United States, it's the third or fourth most popular pursuit, depending which survey you believe.) So why isn't it an Olympic sport? It's played in enough countries to achieve qualifying status, it's easy to follow and there are certainly many sports less deserving.

"I don't know," Chris confesses, "It may be something to do with its old, outdated image." Or it may be that tenpin just looks too simple. Improvements in the balls (that's where the physics comes in), the pins (shrink-wrapped maple) and the lanes (synthetic is best) have made high scores much easier. The 200 landmark, once as desirable as a double century at cricket, is now commonplace. Many players average more than 200 over a season. Even a game of 12 strikes, giving the perfect score of 300, is no longer an impossible dream.

At the highest level, players can not just hit the pin they are aiming for, but even clip it at the angle they want. They can bowl for strikes (all balls down at one go) or spares (all down in two gos) and know with reasonable certainty the result even before the ball leaves their hand. And they carry three or four balls, each with differing vectorial properties. If a golfer carries 14 clubs, why should a bowler not have four bowls to handle different shots and conditions?

"The funny thing is that you never get bored by it, because you never totally master it," says Chris, who has risen from manager at Walton Bowl to senior pier manager. "If you play well, you can't wait to get back on the lanes and, if you play badly, you want to get back on and sort it out. I love bowling because it's great for all the family. It's a game of rhythm and timing. The strength element is mostly mental." He speaks from bitter experience. His best score is 298, made by scoring eight on the final ball. "I couldn't even see where it was going, I was so nervous."

The family found appearing on television far less intimidating. "We were a bit unlucky because we lost by one pin, two pins and four pins, otherwise we would have been at least second," Jacquie said.

But the season-long Tenpin League has already given them far more than their 15 minutes of fame. "As we got nearer the final, every time we walked down the high street, people would ask how we had done. Some teams that we had beaten earlier even came to support us," Chris said.

Daniel, who is getting married soon but has no plans to interrupt his tenpin career, was equally enthusiastic. "In the final, we were treated like proper sportsmen. We're not used to that in tenpin."